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Monday, December 11, 2017

Furniture Collecting in Louisiana

Furniture Collecting in Louisiana by Cybèle Gontar
Fig. 2: Don Reggio (b. 1950) Pitot House, Bayou St. John, 1975. Watercolor, 11 x 13 inches. This plantation home, formerly of James (Jacques-François) Pitot, first mayor of New Orleans, 1804–1805, was built circa 1799 and remains largely intact. Image courtesy of Mr. Reggio and the Louisiana Landmarks Society.
Fig. 2: Don Reggio (b. 1950) Pitot House, Bayou St. John, 1975. Watercolor, 11 x 13 inches. This plantation home, formerly of James (Jacques-François) Pitot, first mayor of New Orleans, 1804–1805, was built circa 1799 and remains largely intact. Image courtesy of Mr. Reggio and the Louisiana Landmarks Society.

by Cybèle Gontar

Three generations of inspired Louisiana collectors have contributed in profound ways to the preservation and study of some of the most important furniture crafted in or imported into the Deep South. A much-needed study devoted to the region, Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, 1735–1845, to be published by The Historic New Orleans Collection this winter, will include many pieces in both public and private collections that reflect collectors’ wise choices, informed tastes, and an abiding passion for local history. Guardians of culture, they have assembled Louisiana-made canopied tall-post beds, elegant Creole cabriole-leg armoires, Fournier clocks, and rustic Acadian cypress pieces (Fig. 1), not only for personal enjoyment, but for donations to such house museums throughout the state as the Pitot House and Magnolia Mound plantation homes.1 Such gifts have helped to secure an important facet of Louisiana’s cultural patrimony for generations to come (Figs. 2–4).

Fig. 1: Louisiana cypress table with original Prussian blue paint, early nineteenth-century. H 28-3/4, W. 34, D. 57 in. Image courtesy of Neal Auction Company. Fig. 3: A Pitot House upstairs bedchamber contains a Louisiana-made highly-figured mahogany, cabriole leg armoire, ca. 1810–1820. H. 75. W. 52, D. 20 in. Donated by Hugh A. Smith. Photography by Terry Thibeau. All Thibeau photography courtesy of the author.
Fig. 1: Louisiana cypress table with original Prussian blue paint, early nineteenth-century. H 28-3/4, W. 34, D. 57 in. Image courtesy of Neal Auction Company.

Fig. 3: A Pitot House upstairs bedchamber contains a Louisiana-made highly-figured mahogany, cabriole leg armoire, ca. 1810–1820. H. 75. W. 52, D. 20 in. Donated by Hugh A. Smith. Photography by Terry Thibeau. All Thibeau photography courtesy of the author.

Fig. 4: Punkah fan or Va-mouche, cypress and parchment, ca. 1790, originally from Tibot Plantation, New Roads, Louisiana. H. 42, W. 36 in. A punkah (from the Hindi word pankha meaning hand fan) is a ceiling-mounted fan operated by slaves in southern antebellum homes. For more information see the scholarship of Dana E. Byrd in World of a Slave: Encyclopedia of the Material Life of Slaves in the United States. Photography by Terry Thibeau.
Fig. 4: Punkah fan or Va-mouche, cypress and parchment, ca. 1790, originally from Tibot Plantation, New Roads, Louisiana. H. 42, W. 36 in. A punkah (from the Hindi word pankha meaning hand fan) is a ceiling-mounted fan operated by slaves in southern antebellum homes. For more information see the scholarship of Dana E. Byrd in World of a Slave: Encyclopedia of the Material Life of Slaves in the United States. Photography by Terry Thibeau.

Our story begins in the early twentieth century with a first generation of collectors that included Felix Herwig Kuntz (1890–1971) and his brother, Emile Nicholas Kuntz (1906–1980), Dr. George B. Crozat (1894–1966), and Dr. and Mrs. Lionel T. Wolford, Sr. (1893–1980; 1908–1997). Furnishing Louisiana co-author and former Louisiana State University Art Museum director H. Parrott Bacot well remembers the Kuntz brothers, and “Mr. Felix,” was an important mentor. Bacot explains that Kuntz, “the dean of Americana” in Louisiana, played a major role in placing objects into public institutions, describing the amount he donated as “staggering.” The Kuntzs’ early purchases began with gifts to their mother, Rosemonde. Having spent time as a youth acquiring historical mementos, Felix began actively collecting material related to the history of New Orleans during the late 1920s after Navy service in World War I.2 By the 1960s this assemblage had become the most important in the state. In 1968 it formed the basis of the exhibition 250 Years of Life in New Orleans: The Rosemonde E. and Emile Kuntz Collection and the Felix H. Kuntz Collection organized by the local Friends of the Cabildo. Among the two hundred and twenty-five items displayed, a number of pieces of furniture from the Colonial period were shown, including a 1790 tulip poplar oval tilt-top table supported by a revolving neoclassical lyre base. Today the table and other early furniture remain on view in the Louisiana Federal bedchamber (Fig. 5) created at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1983 under the auspices of Emile’s daughters Karolyn Westervelt and Rosemonde Capomazza di Campolattaro and his widow, Julia. Felix acquired more than locally made furniture; an adjoining room at the museum contains highly important American-made pieces he purchased, including a mahogany Chippendale chest-on-chest (circa 1770–1790) made by Thomas Affleck of Philadelphia.

Fig. 5: The Louisiana Federal Bedchamber of The New Orleans Museum of Art represents the only public installation devoted solely to Louisiana-made decorative arts; photography by Terry Thibeau. Oval tilt-top poplar table, ca. 1800–1820. H. 43-3/4, W. 30-3/8 in, L 46-3/4 in. Formerly in the Kuntz collection and now in the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art (78.206). See also a mahogany armoire, ca. 1815, with stop-fluted stiles and door divider (78.200); a swag-and-tassel inlaid arched headboard on a Federal style walnut highpost bedstead, ca. 1815; and a cherry and cypress wood cabriole leg table, ca. 1800.
Fig. 5: The Louisiana Federal Bedchamber of The New Orleans Museum of Art represents the only public installation devoted solely to Louisiana-made decorative arts; photography by Terry Thibeau. Oval tilt-top poplar table, ca. 1800–1820. H. 43-3/4, W. 30-3/8 in, L 46-3/4 in. Formerly in the Kuntz collection and now in the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art (78.206). See also a mahogany armoire, ca. 1815, with stop-fluted stiles and door divider (78.200); a swag-and-tassel inlaid arched headboard on a Federal style walnut highpost bedstead, ca. 1815; and a cherry and cypress wood cabriole leg table, ca. 1800.

Fig. 6: Erard-Esby House, New Orleans, 1880. Interior with a lyre-back mahogany armchair (left), New York or Louisiana, ca. 1815, H. 35-3/4, D. 24, W. 22 in., discovered by Dr. George Crozat and inherited by the Wolfords; similar to a New York side chair in the Kuntz collection, New Orleans Museum of Art, that was once part of the Archdiocesan collection. Eve Before the Fall (center) Carrara marble, H. 36, W. 12, D. 11 in., also from the Crozat collection. A rare cherry Campeche chair (right) with scalloped crest and pinecone finials, ca. 1820, possibly Louisiana, H. 36, W. 26, D. 28 in. Photography by Richard Sexton.
Fig. 6: Erard-Esby House, New Orleans, 1880. Interior with a lyre-back mahogany armchair (left), New York or Louisiana, ca. 1815, H. 35-3/4, D. 24, W. 22 in., discovered by Dr. George Crozat and inherited by the Wolfords; similar to a New York side chair in the Kuntz collection, New Orleans Museum of Art, that was once part of the Archdiocesan collection. Eve Before the Fall (center) Carrara marble, H. 36, W. 12, D. 11 in., also from the Crozat collection. A rare cherry Campeche chair (right) with scalloped crest and pinecone finials, ca. 1820, possibly Louisiana, H. 36, W. 26, D. 28 in. Photography by Richard Sexton.

Often collectors are inspired by the restoration effort on a historic home. In 1940, George B. Crozat, a prominent New Orleans orthodontist and noted antiquarian, bought Houmas sugar plantation, originally owned by Maurice Conway and Alexandre Latil, who had purchased it from the Houmas Indians in the eighteenth century. Houmas House, an elegant neoclassical manse, had been built in front of an existing domicile in circa 1840 by Colonel John Smith Preston and his wife Caroline, daughter of Revolutionary War hero Colonel Wade Hampton. In order to properly restore an original outdoor kitchen, Crozat traveled to Colonial Williamsburg and the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum to observe their collections and seek advice. Dr. Crozat and his sister, Dr. Anita Crozat Kohlsdorf, in turn influenced noted Fabergé egg collector Matilda Geddings Grey, and her own interiors at Evergreen Plantation reflect a common interest in furniture. Dr. Crozat also frequently conferred with friends the Wolfords of Jeanerette, Louisiana, who often gave him articles he admired and vice versa. This sort of sharing was easy because in the 1930s and ‘40s, a traditional Louisiana armoire was valued at as little as thirty-five or forty dollars. Raised next door to the Wolfords, second-generation collector Peter W. Patout (Fig. 6) emphasizes their influence on many who went on to form significant collections. “Their enthusiasm,” he explains, “was like an elixir.”

As a token of friendship, Dr. Crozat willed to the Wolfords a number of pieces including a tall-case clock made by the New Orleans clockmaker Stanislaus Fournier (1814–1883), which originally belonged to the Old Ursuline Convent formerly on Dauphine St. As an example of the interconnectedness of local furniture aficionados, this clock was later acquired by second-generation collector D. Benjamin Kleinpeter, who placed it within his own carefully-restored Greek Revival home in Baton Rouge (Fig. 7). Dr. Crozat’s extraordinary collection was auctioned in 2003, its value approaching $2 million.3 Some of the stars of the auction included a rare faux-bois cypress and pine cabinet, an urn-inlaid armoire, and an American walnut plantation desk.

Fig. 7: Stanislaus Fournier (born Saint-Aubin-le-Cauf, Normandy; d. March 25, 1883), tall case clock with round enamel dial marked “S. Fournier Nle Orleans,” mid-nineteenth century, in later stained pine case with stepped cornice. H. 92, W. 22, D. 11 in. Fournier apprenticed with the Paris firm of Lepaute who sent him to install a large clock in New Orleans’ St. Louis Hotel in 1841 or 1842. Prompted by the lack of clock and watchmakers in the city, Fournier opened a shop on Toulouse Street and later at 50 Royal Street.  Photograph courtesy of Neal Auction Company, New Orleans.
Fig. 7: Stanislaus Fournier (born Saint-Aubin-le-Cauf, Normandy; d. March 25, 1883), tall case clock with round enamel dial marked “S. Fournier Nle Orleans,” mid-nineteenth century, in later stained pine case with stepped cornice. H. 92, W. 22, D. 11 in. Fournier apprenticed with the Paris firm of Lepaute who sent him to install a large clock in New Orleans’ St. Louis Hotel in 1841 or 1842. Prompted by the lack of clock and watchmakers in the city, Fournier opened a shop on Toulouse Street and later at 50 Royal Street. Photograph courtesy of Neal Auction Company, New Orleans.

With a tradition of collecting underway, a second generation followed suit, including: Hugh Allison Smith, the Holden Family, Dr. and Mrs. Robert C. Judice, Dr. Thomas and Mercedes B. Whitecloud, and Dr. and Mrs. Hollensworth. A 1966 lecture for the Louisiana Landmarks Society by Dr. Jessie J. Poesch of Tulane University emphasizing the relevance and beauty of surviving early Lower Mississippi River Valley furniture had an impact upon the new flock of collectors. Poesch produced the first scholarly article on Louisiana furniture in August 1968.4 In 1972, she spearheaded the first exhibition solely devoted to Louisiana-made furniture at the Cabildo, Early Furniture of Louisiana, to which the Judices and Smiths made generous loans. For the first time, important historic pieces were shown chronologically, and local stylistic evolution and the impact on local production of furniture from France, Canada, and the West Indies were traced (Fig. 8).

This show was quickly followed by another, organized by Dr. Jack Holden and the Art Center for Southwestern Louisiana in 1974. Early French Louisiana Furnishings, 1700–1830 more pointedly differentiated between Colonial pieces, Acadian style objects evoking Canadian design sources, and Creole-style furniture as it evolved from melding French, Spanish, West Indian, and Anglo-American influences. An accompanying catalogue included a detailed checklist of local woods, as well as primary source references to Louisiana cabinetmakers. Dr. Holden and his wife Pat Charbonnet Holden have since become some of the most important preservationists in the state—this activity, in fact, an outgrowth of their furniture collecting.

Presently, a third generation of collectors is helping to lead in the ongoing preservation and scholarship of local artifacts. Among them are Mr. and Mrs. Robert J. Patrick, and Dr. and Mrs. Wayne Stromeyer. Among their favorite pieces, the Stromeyers include a rare, intact armoire exhibiting classic early Louisiana French influence except for the base, which exhibits Anglo-American Sheraton-style features in the form of turned, delicate legs with brass ball feet and a straight skirt. It owes its survival to an African-American woman who recognized its beauty and importance, say the Stromeyers. “Her allocated storage space was a barn with a ceiling too low to accommodate it. The common solutions of cutting the legs or removing the cornice were unappealing to her, and she chose to remove a part of the barn ceiling instead.” Another favorite is a Creole chair (Fig. 9) that descended in the family of Emygde Ory, one of the owners of San Francisco Plantation. “The chair was made by Mr. Robinet, a free man of color who was a chairmaker in St. James Parish. It is one of the few pieces of early Louisiana furniture for which the maker is known.”

Fig. 8: One of a pair of similar armoires, probably Louisiana. (Left): H. 78-1/2, W. 44-1/2, D. 21-1/2 in. These armoires, in the Dr. Thomas and Mercedes B. Whitecloud Collection, evoke a West Indian flavor and are part of a group of four related examples, three discovered locally and a fourth from the collection of a “French American” in England. Overall style, visible pegging, and three-panel sides are indicative of an early date. Photography by Terry Thibeau.
Fig. 8: One of a pair of similar armoires, probably Louisiana. (Left): H. 78-1/2, W. 44-1/2, D. 21-1/2 in. These armoires, in the Dr. Thomas and Mercedes B. Whitecloud Collection, evoke a West Indian flavor and are part of a group of four related examples, three discovered locally and a fourth from the collection of a “French American” in England. Overall style, visible pegging, and three-panel sides are indicative of an early date. Photography by Terry Thibeau.

The Patricks identify their two Creole “Butterfly Man” armoires, currently on loan to The Historic New Orleans Collection, as among their favorites (Figs. 10, 11).5 Crafted in New Orleans, the cabinets were not originally a pair, though they came from the same shop as is evident by their matching apron patterns, cornice profiles, and inlaid swag treatments, and other points of construction. Inlaid “EM” and “FA” ciphers signify the original owners in keeping with a French tradition of such monogrammed wardrobes, probably commissioned like portraits to commemorate the owner’s majority or betrothal. Butterfly Man armoires—their maker named by collector Hugh Smith for the use of small butterfly-shaped “flying Dutchman” patches on the interior walls—typify the Creole style as first defined by Poesch and Holden. The Patricks’ recently-acquired Empire mahogany doll bed may be a Louisiana cabinetmaker’s model; its turned posts strongly resemble those on full-size beds found in local collections, including that of the Kleinpeters (Figs. 12, 13). Another favorite includes a blue milk-painted cypress corner cabinet that originally belonged to the Turnbull family of Rosedown Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana.

The acquisition this spring of a highly important and exuberantly inlaid Louisiana armoire by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (Fig. 14) signals a quickening of interest in the material culture of the Deep South, as the efforts of several generations of collectors come to fruition in the form of advanced scholarship. The Williamsburg armoire’s interwoven string inlay may be found on a related example in the Kleinpeter collection (Fig. 15).6 With ongoing and inspired collecting efforts, such objects will continue to surface and be made available for promising research.

Fig. 9: Châne Vert, Baton Rouge, 1824–1834. Châne Vert interior with Louisiana Federal mahogany armoire, ca. 1820, with brass-ball feet and reeded legs; at right, a corn husk seat hardwood chair, ca. 1840s, made by Mr. Robinet, a free man of color and cabinetmaker. Photography by Jim Zietz.
Fig. 9: Châne Vert, Baton Rouge, 1824–1834. Châene Vert interior with Louisiana Federal mahogany armoire, ca. 1820, with brass-ball feet and reeded legs; at right, a corn husk seat hardwood chair, ca. 1840s, made by Mr. Robinet, a free man of color and cabinetmaker. Photography by Jim Zietz.

Fig. 10: One of two Creole-style armoires attributed to the Butterfly Man with inlay possibly by George Dewhurst (b. ca. 1780), New Orleans, ca. 1810–1825. Both armoires are made of mahogany, cypress, walnut, and poplar with inlays of ebony and other light and dark wood. (Right): Armoire with inlaid “EM” in a cartouche on the frieze: H 90-3/8, W. 59-1/2, D. 24-9/16 in. (Left): Armoire with inlaid “FA” in a cartouche on the frieze:  H. 93-1/4, W 58, D 24-3/4 in. Figure 9 formerly owned by Dr. Crozat. Both currently in the collection of Mrs. and Mrs. Robert J. Patrick. Photography by Terry Thibeau. Currently on display at The Historic New Orleans Collection. Fig. 11: One of two Creole-style armoires attributed to the Butterfly Man with inlay possibly by George Dewhurst (b. ca. 1780), New Orleans, ca. 1810–1825. Both armoires are made of mahogany, cypress, walnut, and poplar with inlays of ebony and other light and dark wood. (Right): Armoire with inlaid “EM” in a cartouche on the frieze: H 90-3/8, W. 59-1/2, D. 24-9/16 in. (Left): Armoire with inlaid “FA” in a cartouche on the frieze:  H. 93-1/4, W 58, D 24-3/4 in. Figure 9 formerly owned by Dr. Crozat. Both currently in the collection of Mrs. and Mrs. Robert J. Patrick. Photography by Terry Thibeau. Currently on display at The Historic New Orleans Collection.
Figs. 10, 11: Two Creole-style armoires attributed to the Butterfly Man with inlay possibly by George Dewhurst (b. ca. 1780), New Orleans, ca. 1810–1825. Both armoires are made of mahogany, cypress, walnut, and poplar with inlays of ebony and other light and dark wood. (Right): Armoire with inlaid “EM” in a cartouche on the frieze: H 90-3/8, W. 59-1/2, D. 24-9/16 in. (Left): Armoire with inlaid “FA” in a cartouche on the frieze: H. 93-1/4, W 58, D 24-3/4 in. Figure 9 formerly owned by Dr. Crozat. Both currently in the collection of Mrs. and Mrs. Robert J. Patrick. Photography by Terry Thibeau. Currently on display at The Historic New Orleans Collection.

Figs. 12, 13: (Right): Doll bed, probably Louisiana, ca. 1830. Mahogany, mahogany veneer, and white pine. H. 30-3/4, W. 17, D. 29-3/4 in. (Left): Sebastian Louis Kleinpeter House interior with mahogany turned-post bed, Louisiana, ca. 1830, and a Campeche or “boutaque”(from the Spanish butaca) chair, ca. 1825. Chair: H. 35, W. 21, D. 30-1/8 in. Photography by Terry Thibeau and Jim Zietz. Figs. 12, 13: (Right): Doll bed, probably Louisiana, ca. 1830. Mahogany, mahogany veneer, and white pine. H. 30-3/4, W. 17, D. 29-3/4 in. (Left): Sebastian Louis Kleinpeter House interior with mahogany turned-post bed, Louisiana, ca. 1830, and a Campeche or “boutaque”(from the Spanish butaca) chair, ca. 1825. Chair: H. 35, W. 21, D. 30-1/8 in. Photography by Terry Thibeau and Jim Zietz.
Figs. 12, 13: (Right): Doll bed, probably Louisiana, ca. 1830. Mahogany, mahogany veneer, and white pine. H. 30-3/4, W. 17, D. 29-3/4 in. (Left): Sebastian Louis Kleinpeter House interior with mahogany turned-post bed, Louisiana, ca. 1830, and a Campeche or “boutaque” (from the Spanish butaca) chair, ca. 1825. Chair: H. 35, W. 21, D. 30-1/8 in. Photography by Terry Thibeau and Jim Zietz.

Figs. 14, 15: (Right) Louisiana Creole inlaid armoire, early nineteenth century. Mahogany, poplar, yellow pine, satinwood veneer, holly and maplewood stringing. H. 91, W. 61, D 23-1/8 in. Courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Delicate pied de biche feet are a rare surviving feature on the cabriole legs. (Left) An inlaid armoire from the D. Benjamin Kleinpeter collection (shown open) bears a similar intertwined stringing inlaid across the frieze as in figure 14. Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection. Photography by Jim Zietz. Figs. 14, 15: (Right) Louisiana Creole inlaid armoire, early nineteenth century. Mahogany, poplar, yellow pine, satinwood veneer, holly and maplewood stringing. H. 91, W. 61, D 23-1/8 in. Courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Delicate pied de biche feet are a rare surviving feature on the cabriole legs. (Left) An inlaid armoire from the D. Benjamin Kleinpeter collection (shown open) bears a similar intertwined stringing inlaid across the frieze as in figure 14. Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection. Photography by Jim Zietz.
Figs. 14, 15: (Right) Louisiana Creole inlaid armoire, early nineteenth century. Mahogany, poplar, yellow pine, satinwood veneer, holly and maplewood stringing. H. 91, W. 61, D 23-1/8 in. Courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Delicate pied de biche feet are a rare surviving feature on the cabriole legs. (Left) An inlaid armoire from the D. Benjamin Kleinpeter collection (shown open) bears a similar intertwined stringing inlaid across the frieze as in figure 14. Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection. Photography by Jim Zietz.

For more information on Louisiana furniture from the collection of Magnolia Mound Plantation, vsit www.friendsofmagnoliamound.org.

The author thanks Tarah D. Arcuri, John Bullard, Priscilla Lawrence, Susan Lloyd McClamroch, Jennifer Ickes, Steven Huber, John Keefe, Emory Nolan, Peter W. Patout, Jessie Poesch, Terry Thibeau, Irene Wainwright, Rachel Weathers, Mercedes B. Whitecloud, and Jim Zietz for their kind assistance in the preparation of this article.


Cybèle Gontar is co-author of Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, 1735–1845 (December 2010).


1. See H. Parrott Bacot, “Magnolia Mound Plantation House in Baton Rouge, Louisiana,” The Magazine Antiques, (May 1983): 1054-1061.

2. Roulhac Toledano and Mary Louise Christovich, eds., 250 Years of Life in New Orleans, The Rosemonde E. and Emile Kuntz Collection and The Felix H. Kuntz Collection (New Orleans: Friends of the Cabildo, Louisiana State Museum, 1968), 5.

3. Neal Auction Company, Houmas House Plantation and Gardens, May 17 & 18, 2003.

4. Jessie J. Poesch, “Early Louisiana armoires,” The Magazine Antiques, (August 1968): 196–205. See also J. J. Poesch, “Furniture of the River Road Plantations,” The Magazine Antiques, (June 1977): 1184-8.

5. For further information about the Butterfly Man group see Cybèle T. Gontar and Jack D. Holden, “The Butterfly Man of New Orleans,” The Magazine Antiques, (May 2008): 136–145. For information about Campeche chairs see Gontar, “The American Campeche Chair,” (May 2009): 88–95.

6. Close analysis of this object, now underway, will more precisely define its relationship to the larger body of local craftsmanship.

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